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COP28: Climate in an age of permacrisis 

November 1, 2023

This article is part of our COP28 series. Learn more about CATF at COP28.

5 Principles for Urgency in the Face of Complexity at COP28 and Beyond 

The world is not in great shape. History, as the pundits say, has returned with vengeance. But for our cellphones and social media, it could be the early ’70s: war in the Middle East, Cold War in Europe, rampant inflation, a pervasive global energy crisis. None of these developments are likely to fade soon. “Polycrisis” seems to increasingly look like “permacrisis.” 

So, what does this have to do with climate change and COP28? 

It complicates things. While climate advocates would like climate to be the top issue – an emergency — achieving the world’s attention, that has never been the case and is even more unlikely today — when we find ourselves in a state of permacrisis.   

Global polls have consistently shown that majorities believe climate change is a problem, but never that they find it to be the top issue. That’s true in wealthy countries, and even more so in low income ones, where development and wealth creation top the agenda without fail. Even in wealthy countries, those who favor climate action are not willing to pay a lot to address it. Permacrisis is hardly likely to reverse those trends. 

While climate may well be an emergency in some objective definition, framing it that way may lead to skewed results and unrealistic goals, and so may not be the most effective guide to climate action. The term “emergency” implies an unforeseen combination of circumstances that combine to call for immediate action — a singular focus on a linear response to the exclusion of all else, and the need for quick solution. 

Climate change is simply not like that. It’s a complex set of moving parts with different speeds and deep contextual realities. 

Consider first the scale of the problem: We must replace our existing energy system, now 80% fossil fueled, with new kit that fits the bill and is zero-carbon, and then at least quadruple the capacity of the electric grid during this century. And that’s even assuming – as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios do – that many countries in the developing world will never access anything like the per capita energy consumption levels of wealthy nations, which would mean billions of people continuing to live in energy deficit. If we did factor in increased energy consumption to reach modern standards of living, we’d likely have to double the system again.  

This transformation of a growing and massively complex system has also proven to be a slow process, and it’s one that will not succeed unless we set realistic goals that respect the complexity of the problem and work within a paradigm of growing energy demand. While wind and solar, for example, have made substantial gains in the last two decades, supplying more than 10% of global electricity demand today (and a little over 2% of total energy) according to the latest International Energy Agency report, fossil fueled electricity also continues to rise to meet demand. We are not even running fast enough to stay in place. 

And that’s just electricity, which today represents 20% of global energy consumption. Direct combustion of fossil fuels in industry, transport, and buildings comprises the other 80%. And while wealthy nations may well be nearing “peak fossil fuel,” demand for those fuels is growing quickly among the 7 billion people in lower- and middle-income countries. We can certainly electrify many of these end uses with zero-carbon electricity, but that would mean increasing the size of our global electric generation capacity – ultimately all zero-carbon – by a factor of four, even while assuming continued energy poverty in the Global South. Meeting modern energy ambition and demand in the Global South will mean the power grid would need to grow to perhaps eight times its current size. 

That’s a lot to tackle in a few decades even with sufficient “political will” which, while so easily invoked, is not highly available for an issue that is decidedly not top tier in a permacrisis world. Competing demands of economic growth, which have always been prioritized in wealthy countries, geopolitical security, and even other environmental imperatives will vie for top priority. 

We talk a lot about “peak emissions” and “peak fossil” in climate circles. Maybe it’s time to declare “peak” in our “emergency” framing, avoiding the implication of a quick fix, and instead committing to cultivating a mindset that’s better fit for purpose. It’s surely less of a soundbite, but maybe “urgency in the face of complexity” will serve us better and help us chart a course for effective climate action that tackles difficult realities head-on at COP28 and beyond. 

So, what kind of conclusions would an urgency-complexity mindset lead us to?  

Here are 5 key principles to hold while heading into COP28: 

1. We need more options, not fewer. 

First, a recognition that the size and complexity of the problem means we need more solutions, not fewer. We have had great success with deploying renewable energy – chiefly wind and solar – and will hopefully have a lot more of it. But, to borrow a track metaphor, we are barely in the first mile of a marathon. What got us here may not get us all the way to the finish line.  

We need to plan for a world that will need reliable power output many times current levels. Counting on one or two technologies to meet rapidly growing demand around the clock and completely decarbonizing the existing system is not a recipe for success. Global markets will require a diversity of options to meet that demand reliably. Technical studies continue to demonstrate the need for always-available, non-weather dependent power. Changing weather patterns, and their implications for power system reliability in weather-dependent energy systems, are also just beginning to be understood – and further underscore the need for more options. 

Long duration storage, should it become commercial, might be able to fill that niche in some multi-day periods, but likely not for entire seasons of low wind and sun. Even as we scale renewables, it would be prudent to accelerate the deployment of clean firm power sources like nuclear energy and fossil energy with carbon capture and sequestration. Future options could include superhot rock geothermal and fusion energy, both of which CATF is pushing toward commercialization. We will also need more options for industrial processes and transport that can’t be easily electrified. While hydrogen and its derivatives may be able to serve some of that demand, hydrogen is likely to be expensive and – especially if we only supply it from renewable sources scavenging from the electric grid – limited in scale and most likely prioritized for highest-cost industrial or transportation challenges. 

Another complexity that should lead us to options-based thinking is land availability. Earth is a crowded planet. Nearly every acre is spoken for by habitation, agriculture, industry, or conservation uses. In the developed world, wind and solar growth have in many places been stymied by substantial opposition to altering landscapes. This puts an even greater spotlight on the need to minimize the land footprint of the energy system, a key focus of CATF’s Land Systems and Infrastructure Deployment programs. That means that power-dense sources like nuclear and advanced geothermal may become even more relevant, along with smarter and more aggressive and forward-looking spatial energy planning

Finally, the scale of the problem, and the time it will take to remake the world’s gargantuan energy infrastructure, makes obvious a point that is not often acknowledged, and is a flashpoint at COP28: fossil fuels won’t disappear overnight, and potentially won’t wind down entirely during this century. This also leads us to the need for more options, as we need a viable commercial option to capture and sequester carbon from those fuels and fast action to eliminate methane emissions from oil and gas production, something nearly every credible decarbonization pathway relies on and something our Carbon Capture and Methane Pollution Prevention programs are advancing around the world. If we are lucky, we might need less carbon capture than current models project, but even a fraction of that requirement is still substantial and means we need to start scaling this critical technology yesterday.  

Transparent and honest commitment by the global oil and gas industry is essential to the success of that effort, given its ownership of the relevant assets and its experience producing and moving fluids and gases around the world. The industry’s commitment and cooperation are also key for the management of methane and production of clean hydrogen. Now is not the time to shy away from counterintuitive partnerships. 

2. It’s a technology marathon, not a sprint. 

Another key pillar of the urgency/complexity mindset is acknowledging that creating real options takes time. It took many decades of targeted government support to create today’s lower cost wind and solar industry through research, demonstration and development, and subsidized scaling. We have learned a lot about what works in technology commercialization. It may not take 30 years for other technologies to get there, but it also won’t happen overnight. The fact that some technologies – advanced nuclear fission, or fusion energy, for example – are not likely to be commercially implemented at scale by 2030 hardly makes them irrelevant.  

Given the likely increasing pressures of development, energy growth, and decarbonization, and the ongoing changes in geopolitical shifts, 2030, 2040, and 2050 will each serve as a pit stop to evaluate, redirect, and recharge our climate strategies. But the world doesn’t end in 2050 (we hope). Between 2030 through the second half of the century is likely where we will see the real benefit from scaling and investing now in a more robust portfolio of climate-forward technologies. But it’s essential to start on the medium- to long-term options now, even as we deploy the options we have available today such as renewables, methane management, and current generation nuclear energy (subject to the many changes needed to scale that industry). 

3. Cost matters. 

The urgency-complexity mindset also forces recognition of a plain truth: cost matters. It matters even more in an era of inflation and uncertainty.  

The capital requirements for the energy transition are staggering. 

Current analysis suggests we may need to more than double our annual clean energy spend and nearly double our overall energy spend to meet climate targets, starting now.  That means $2 trillion dollars per year of additional investment for the zero-carbon energy transition, on top of the $2.8 trillion already being spent in the energy sector ($1.8 trillion of it for clean energy), for a total of $4.7 trillion per year by 2030 and $5 trillion by year 2040. By comparison, all defense budgets globally add up to just $2.2 trillion per year and total new global net capital investment is only $8 trillion dollars per year across all sectors of the economy. About $1 trillion per year by 2030 and nearly $2 trillion per year by 2050 will be needed for clean energy investments in the developing world (excluding China), even assuming their energy consumption remains low. 

Where will this money come from? The era of nearly free money which allowed very low-cost financing of clean energy infrastructure is over. Green premiums will now need to be financed either from consumers in their energy bills or by government borrowing, and governments around the world are already over-leveraged. Higher borrowing costs combined with higher commodity cost inflation (cement, steel) means much higher final costs for new kit than was the case two years ago. In a world of high inflation for non-energy goods, there will be a limit to political tolerance for increased costs. 

This leads to three conclusions: First, we need to minimize the cost of the energy transition and carefully allocate scarce capital (and most studies suggest a diversity of technologies is critical to managing costs). Second, we need to work even harder to drive down costs through demonstration and learning-by-scaling of advanced technology. Third, we need to keep global low-carbon goods trade as open as possible to harvest comparative advantage and reduce overall transition costs. 

4. It’s a multi-speed world. 

The energy transition is going to require substantial investment, and the relative burden will fall heavier on lower income industrializing countries, many of which have low savings and limited (or costly) access to international capital. One size will not fit all, and it is likely that those nations – many of which are rich in resource endowments and dependent on fossil energy production and export for substantial revenue – will prioritize economic development over climate. That means they may miss the opportunity to build a zero-carbon energy system in the short term that meets the demand of their growing population, and therefore decarbonize at a slower pace than those with better access to finance and existing infrastructure. While some “leapfrog” opportunities exist, large reliable power grids serving major developing world urban centers where most people live will require affordable power, available 24/7; and industries in the developing world will need reliable fuel sources.  

This has several implications. First, the industrialized world, with per capita fossil energy consumption many times that of low-income regions, may need to move to net-zero emissions much faster to provide some carbon headroom to allow for development (Sub-Saharan Africa today accounts for only 3% of global emissions). Second, leading economies need to consider ways to not just “transfer” low-carbon technology but create premium markets for exported energy products that can finance low-carbon energy development in these countries using technologies such as superhot rock energy, zero-carbon electricity, and carbon capture and sequestration. Finally, the affluent countries need to prioritize the economic development more generally of low-wealth regions, since creating more domestic wealth will be a critical path for emerging markets to undertake decarbonization.  

5. Talk is cheap. Plans and actions are critical.  

At COP28, a critical question will be whether the world can move from targets to practical plans that allow actors to be held accountable. The real work happens between and outside the COPs, where concrete plans serve as the foundation for progress. While public and sometimes symbolic pledges from governments and industry can set the stage for action, it is imperative that we move toward detailed plans that can be achieved in the real world — with clearly defined actions, responsibilities, and milestones for financing, implementation, asset transformation, and technology deployment. 

Toward a more effective approach at COP28 and beyond 

Juggling urgency and complexity may not be as exciting a prospect as rushing to emergencies or engaging in polarizing polemics. But it is far more likely to get us where we need to go faster with greater certainty at lower cost. At COP28, with these five principles in mind, we’ll be on the ground and across tables with key stakeholders from around the world — engaging in meaningful discussions about policies and plans for urgency in an increasingly complex world. 

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